The Metal Family Moshes On

By Steve Appleford

The boy looked to be about 4 years old, a smiling little kid in spiky hair and green camouflage short-pants. And all around him were dozens of ecstatic young men, swirling in the usual violent circle, pushing, shoving, tumbling into one another in either rage or brotherly affection. A preschooler was in the mosh pit.

He was too young to pay attention to the signs posted outside the Hyundai Pavilion box office in Devore: “Enter moshing at your own risk.” He’d been led there by a shirtless, reckless father figure holding a beer in his other hand, a cigarette burning between his lips. The kid was thrilled, and he definitely didn’t belong there. Another metal generation was taking its first baby steps.

That was one interpretation of Family Values, the name of Korn’s traveling hard-rock festival, which landed Saturday at the outdoor venue for nine hours of very hard rock.

Standing outside one mosh pit, a 22-year-old man who called himself Nathan P. was picking apart bits of marijuana on a paper plate. Five minutes before, he’d been in the pit himself, feeding off the music and adrenalin of the moment. “There is so much electricity in the … air,” he said, “it’s beautiful.”

As he spoke, a tall man with shaggy dark hair fell hard to the ground and was immediately surrounded by several shirtless young men. A few kicked him where he lay. His eyes rolled back, but soon he was on his feet, stumbling out of the pit.

Nathan has been there. “Everybody gets hurt, bro,” he said. “All you can do is get up and just wipe it off and get back going, dude. It’s like life.”

Most do get back up, but not everyone. At the July 30 tour stop in Atlanta, a fan suffered a fatal brain injury after being sucker-punched during an argument. Andy Richardson, 30, died two days later. Police have since made an arrest.

It was no Altamont. Blood is spilled at metal concerts every weekend, just as there are drunken brawls at county fairs and baseball games. Even Depeche Mode fans will riot under certain conditions (and have). There’s one in every crowd. And some crowds have more than one.

Earlier in the day, singer Chino Moreno of co-headlining band the Deftones expressed real regret over Richardson’s death.

“I always make a point, when we’re playing, if I see someone fighting we’ll stop the song and tell them to chill out. Then we’ll continue with the music. The music is secondary to people’s safety.”

“We were real sad,” said Korn guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer of the death, reclining backstage hours before the night’s closing set. He looked up with a knowing expression and suggested that rock concerts can sometimes be like that. “It’s not the safest place to go, no matter who you are. Last night onstage I got hit in the back with a quarter, also with a cellphone. I get [stuff] thrown at me all night long.”

But the contact with fans is mostly positive. Only minutes earlier, Shaffer and the rest of Korn were greeting fans and signing autographs for a long line of contest winners. He was typically upbeat but tired, after recent tours of Europe and Asia. Family Values was the band’s second tour of the U.S. since the December release of its album “See You on the Other Side.”

Korn meets with fans at every tour stop. “I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a lot from different people, being around the world,” Shaffer said. “Everybody has the same problems, the same four or five things that they all struggle with: relationships, finance, personal issues. It keeps me grounded, you know?”

During Korn’s 90-minute performance, the band faced a wide landscape crowded with excited fans raising up the devil’s horns salute or middle fingers at the band’s creep-show melodies and explosive slabs of guitar. The messages could be agonized, dark, confused, but what might be reasonably scary to some is a thrill to others. A fan has got to know his limitations.

Rage is easy to come by in metal, so it takes more than volume and a bad attitude to last. The best hard rock is fueled by a singular, even deviant point of view, a striking voice and persona to transform the obvious into the provocative. Korn has had that from the beginning.

During the Deftones’ set, Moreno showed himself to be – like Korn’s Jonathan Davis – one of hard rock’s most distinctive voices. His desperate groans and whispers wandered and wailed across the grinding foundation of guitarist Stephen Carpenter, outclassing much of the rest of the day.

The remainder of the bill did have its moments, from the melodic hard rock of Flyleaf and Stone Sour to the wild-eyed thrash of Japan’s Dir en Grey, which roared with hard rock stripped down and incomprehensible.

Between band performances, fans strolled amid the food merchants and booths offering jewelry, shades and bandanas. In the booth selling glass pipes for smokers, a young woman in a shirt boasting “Yes … they’re real” lifted her shirt to demonstrate.

Later in the evening, a trio of 17-year-olds from nearby Fontana slumped at a table, taking a break before the final set by Korn. This was the first concert for Matthew Macias, who had his arm around a girl in braids. He tried stepping into a mosh pit but was bounced right out. He’ll be back.

“It was awesome,” he said. “People bouncing off of each other, going off each other, just going off. It was crazy.”

Earlier, a man with a bruised face had sat near him and his friends. “A big ol’ black eye and everything,” Macias said. “His whole face was just purple. Didn’t bother me.”

Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2006.

New Wave or the Truth?

Writer Joe Carducci relays the story of iconic L.A. punk label SST Records through the eyes of its photographer, Naomi Peterson

By Steve Appleford

The secret history of punk sneaks up at unexpected moments. It’s well after midnight on the Loyola Marymount campus, and the place is deserted, except in the little fourth-floor studio of KXLU, where a couple of punk-rock vets and impresarios are the guests on Stray Pop, a weekly radio show. One is a punk-rock intellectual, the other is not. Joe Carducci smiles beneath the fluorescent tubes but looks damn serious with his graying beard and Jack Nicholson hairline. He’s here with a bag of CDs and ancient LPs to share some choice cuts of noise and dysfunction, of sounds ingenious and unlistenable, and songs of brilliant melody and attack. There is punk and original-recipe hardcore, some avant-garde, even a bit of Wyoming bluegrass.

And the dude sitting next to him is called Mugger.

They once shared ownership of the mighty SST Records with founder Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, back when the label was a center of the secret rock & roll underground, home to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, the Meat Puppets and other musical malcontents. Back then, Mugger “loved trouble and laughs,” Carducci remembers, and you can still see some of it in this fit, surf-city joker with his on-air raunchiness. But he’s also the father of an 11-year-old son in Long Beach who goes to Catholic school on the weekend, and whose name is definitely not “Little Mugger.”

Carducci hands an album to host Stella Voce, a champion of outsider rock and indie sounds since she first took the FM microphone, in 1980. It’s called Chunks, a DIY, punk-era Nuggets-style punk compilation from 1981, and on the back cover is the familiar, cryptic handwriting of artist Raymond Pettibon: “Guns don’t kill people, songs do.”

Soon, we hear Mugger’s voice on the vinyl, a track from a quarter-century past by his old band, the Nig-Heist. His snarling “Fuck!” is blown right over the early morning airwaves. Carducci looks up. “Oops.”

This stuff is dangerous, and that was part of its charm, before punk became a fashion statement and major-label marketing plan, instead of what it first represented: a venue for unpredictable aggression and the avant-garde. SST in Hermosa Beach was about something else. And in 1990, Carducci wrote his own history lesson and 300-page manifesto, fueled by a desire for a return to the carnality of pure rock & roll, and fearing that the whole movement would be forgotten otherwise. His Rock and the Pop Narcotic was as startling and obsessive a statement on rock and its impostors as Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock had been for another generation of disagreeable rockroll thinkers.

Carducci’s now done the same for Naomi Petersen, the house photographer for SST, who died in 2003. His memoir, Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That, takes a hard look back at his time in L.A., at the music and contradictions of that scene, and what it meant to be a woman in the uncompromising world of Black Flag. He’s talking about this on the air with Voce, as the clock edges toward 3 a.m. and the next DJ is anxiously setting up. Mugger has a flashback to another time in local punk-rock cuisine as he leans into the mike: “So, are we going to Oki-Dog’s tonight?”

It was art, not politics, that fueled the SST revolution, that sent no-frills van tours by Black Flag and others rocketing across the country, planting seeds even they were unaware of. “If you were after money, you just weren’t in our scene,” Carducci says now. He arrived at SST in September 1981, right before Black Flag’s Damaged hit the street, selling a quick 60,000 units locally but facing ambivalence from East Coast distributors. “They couldn’t imagine punk rock coming out of L.A.,” he says. “It’s hard to believe, but it was conventional wisdom.”

Money was tight. Ginn and his partners lived at the office, sleeping under their desks, on couches, sleeping bags, with no money and no regrets in their strange commune. If they were hungry, they might walk over to the nearby home of Ginn’s parents for a sandwich.

One night in ’82 at SST, Naomi Petersen, then just 17, hooked up with Mugger in his van. He immediately retreated under his desk, leaving her to drive back to Simi Valley at least a little drunk. When she got home at 2 or 3 a.m., her father locked her out of the house. Then the phone rang at SST. Dukowski answered. It was Petersen, calling from a phone booth, her wrists slashed, “throwing herself again on Black Flag’s mercy,” writes Carducci. She was told to come back, and she slept there. No one could tell if she’d been serious, but friends could still see the scars a decade later.

Carducci heard she had a Nikon camera, so the next morning, she was hired as a photographer. Her first assignments were Saccharine Trust and St. Vitus. And Carducci was thrilled to have photos to send to the fanzines and college papers hungry for SST news, even if the mainstream media were generally oblivious. Petersen became a key figure there, a rare female peer in the Black Flag orbit and something more than another momentary conquest. By 1985, she had her own rep on the national indie scene, while keeping her day job as hostess at the Black Angus restaurant in Northridge, where she worked with her friend Duff McKagan, bassist from a new band called Guns N’ Roses.

“There was something of a toll that women or girls paid when they got next to Black Flag,” Carducci writes. He spoke also with Black Flag singer Henry Rollins. “He said if you were a girl around Black Flag, you were going to get fucked. Not raped, but fucked,” says Carducci. “The girls who came up to them, some were troubled or drunk, some were extremely intelligent and were operating on the same level we were: art and action.”

The label was home to a full roster of sonic revolutionaries, bands that were freeform and unique and shared a true DIY ethic. The Minutemen were “fucking corn dogs” from Pedro led by the great singer-guitarist d. boon, and the Meat Puppets “were a mix of heady and redneck,” writes Carducci, and the only band everyone at SST could agree on.

I got to be a tourist in that world for a time, as a student journalist as obsessed with the SST roster as any miscreant or college boy looking for raw kicks on the fractured punk-rock scene. There were other bright spots smoldering within the underground during those years just before punk (and Nirvana) broke, but SST was the only brand that mattered, a real stamp of approval for an alternative state of mind. So there were far-flung shows and interviews with Sonic Youth, the Puppets and Minutemen, and then my pilgrimage to the Ginn family home in Hermosa to interview Rollins himself.

We would talk in the backyard, where a large pair of plaid pants hung from a clothesline, and then step for a moment into the Shed, Rollins’ elevator-sized hovel on the Ginn property that was crammed with cassette tapes and a cot, all beneath the burning gaze of a menacing Charles Manson poster. But on the way in, as we passed through the living room, he introduced me to Pettibon, who is Ginn’s brother and the unpaid SST artist and inventor of the ominous Black Flag logo, still one of the most distinctive trademarks in rock: four black vertical bars in the abstract shape of a flag rippling in the breeze, a design that also suggests pistons at work. Pettibon’s art didn’t come out of punk rock, but it was a crucial venue for him, with an audience of freethinkers and misfits hungry for dangerous images. He sat in an easy chair. But he didn’t look up when Rollins and I passed by. He just glared into space.

Soon after, I was at the SST offices to interview Ginn, a bong at his feet, his hair long and tangled, barely a year before Black Flag disbanded. And before leaving, I briefly met Naomi Petersen, whose name I knew and envied from the series of publicity photos she created. Those raw black-and-white images were a crucial document of an otherwise unknown scene, whose lasting impact would not be fully appreciated until the ’90s, when it was all gone. Petersen’s pictures could be grim or silly, depending on the mood of the band and the moment, created during low-rent photo sessions at a time when major labels typically spent thousands on an artist’s photographs.

Carducci left SST back in 1986, amid growing tension at the label. He wanted to get back to writing. He kept in touch with Petersen for another decade by mail after returning to his former home of Chicago, then moving to Wyoming. She contributed some photographs to his Rock and the Pop Narcotic. But he lost touch with her until hearing of her death, after years of fading health and heavy drinking.

Carducci wrote Enter Naomi not simply because Petersen had died, but because it took two years for him to even hear about it. “It really was like a gut punch,” says Carducci, now 52. “And it goes back to that night when she was bleeding on the floor from her wrists. I was afraid of this in some way.”

Enter Naomi is lovingly researched and bluntly told in rich detail, sometimes lifting from Petersen’s journal entries (“Fucked day — someone shot my car”). It’s also an impressionistic view, at times requiring some awareness of the SST scene and certain events to fully grasp. But Carducci takes it deeper, as only one who knew the players could.

Petersen never made the leap to solvent rock photographer. Some of her earliest work was lost in a shipment to Zurich in the early ’80s, and she was evicted from an apartment in D.C. several years later, her possessions dumped on the street. Petersen and Rollins had talked of doing a book of her pictures in the mid-’90s, but it never happened.

A day after his KXLU visit, Carducci is at Book Soup preparing to read from Enter Naomi. In the crowd is Petersen’s older brother, Chris Petersen, who has a small collection of her pictures in his hands. The book was difficult for him to read, and impossible for their parents, but he and Carducci hope to see a collection of her photos published soon.

“I know it’s important,” says her brother, a real estate investor who, with some partners, recently bought the old Club Lingerie on Sunset, where Petersen once spent so much time. “It would be a shame to hide it.”

Voce has brought her teenage son. And in the front row is Saccharine Trust singer Jack Brewer in a leather blazer, a graying high school dropout who still can’t understand why “all these intelligent people would throw themselves into this thing.” Carducci understands, but there remain a few unanswerable questions from that time, about that scene, about Petersen.

“The music scene is full of pretend nihilists,” Carducci says from behind the podium. “And maybe we didn’t catch the real thing in our midst, because she was such a bright spot.”

LA Weekly, July 4-10, 2008.

Civil War in Reagan Country

The battle between conservatives and moderates could still cost Arnold the race

By Steve Appleford

This line is definitely not moving. It stretches down the block, a crowd of fans and the curious here to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, muscleman and movie star, and the season's great Teutonic hope for the California Republican Party. They haven't realized that virtually none of them will get past the doors at the actor's Santa Monica volunteer headquarters. And now they're getting restless, pressing against the storefront windows, knocking on the glass, watching anxiously for the candidate's grand entrance with a very special surprise guest.

For now, they'll have to be content with the bootleg Arnold T-shirts and buttons being sold on the sidewalk. Inside, a smaller gathering of media and loyal volunteers presses against a small stage surrounded by large photographs of Arnold the Republican fitness and education action hero: posing with an American flag, posing at the Special Olympics, posing beside a young student at a computer. Just like a real politician.

Right up front is Pati Miller, committed volunteer, a wife and mother living large along the canals in Venice, an ex-Democrat now "grown up" at 52. Her 10-year-old son plays football with Schwarzenegger's boy, and she's met the candidate from time to time. But that's not why she is here this morning, proselytizing even now to the women around her.

"We know he's not going to be bought off," she tells them, a "Join Arnold" button on her white Izod polo shirt. "He has his own money. You are his special interest."

The day before, she was in downtown L.A., watching as ex-candidate Bill Simon endorsed Schwarzenegger. Miller is a believer, even if her assurances that Arnold is financially independent - a true outsider! - ignores the $5,683,959 in contributions he's collected for the campaign as of September 29 (besides putting in $6 million of his own money). At least the $2 million he's spending every week on advertising seems to be paying off.

The newest polling finds the actor on the rise, particularly since his single debate appearance on September 24, seemingly on the road to returning the statehouse to Republican control. Which is where it had been for nearly two decades under governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, before things came unglued within the party over taxes, abortion, and Clinton. Even now, the race to recall and replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis once again reveals a Republican Party split and embittered over ideological lines.

So this morning's event is an important one, as Schwarzenegger finally marches to the podium, joined by Congressman Darrell Issa, who had personally bankrolled the statewide petition drive to recall Davis. He had also hoped to replace him. Now, Issa is a supporting player on Arnold's stage. "Darrell has been a great man," Schwarzenegger says. "He has been a uniter and, at the same time, a fantastic friend who is going to be by my side all the way to October 7." And soon they are gone, exiting to the screeching pop metal of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Standing beside the stage is Ron Nehring, president of the California Republican County Chairmen's Association, which has just announced its endorsement of Schwarzenegger. It is the group's first-ever endorsement. "We want to have a decisive victory in the governor's election because we have to send a signal to the legislature that it's not going to be business as usual in California anymore," Nehring says. "A united Republican Party stands the greatest chance of achieving that decisive victory."

This was a not-very-subtle hint that State Sen. Tom McClintock should do the same: stand firm with the Terminator. But the Thousand Oaks Republican has promised not to quit the race, committed to stand for the once-dominant conservative wing of his party. His mantra: Cut taxes, and then cut them again. Both major parties are forever wounded by internal strife and self-destructive feuds. Cruz vs. Gray, McClintock vs. Schwarzenegger, with little love or contact between them. But Democrats have at least been winning and dominating elections since the Clinton '90s. If Arnold or any other Republican succeeds in the recall, it will reverse an anti-Republican trend that just a few months ago looked impenetrable.

California was once home to a Republican dynasty - two terms with Deukmejian, the same with Wilson - but the GOP now holds not a single major statewide office, unless you count one seat on the state board of equalization. Meaning there is no one in power to greet President Bush at the airport. Reagan Country surrendered. Republican money remains plentiful in the home state of Reagan and Nixon, and George Bush is a frequent visitor, stepping off Air Force One just long enough to pick up the check at another million-dollar fundraising dinner. But the leadership needed to turn those resources into votes for exalted state office somehow vanished, leaving a party hopelessly addled and confused, at war with itself.

They curse Davis for spending $10 million on negative ads against Richard Riordan during the GOP primary last year, leading to the nomination of Simon, a far weaker opponent. It was an underhanded and effective move, but if the Republican faithful are so easily duped into embracing the wrong candidate, it suggests deeper issues than can be explained by Davis alone. California Republicans are now little more than the loyal opposition, piously committed to the conservative plan, the dependable gadfly to the Democratic leadership. Unless Arnold pulls off a Hollywood miracle.

Things began to go wrong for California Republicans in the early '90s, when conservatives revolted against tax increases supported by then-Gov. Wilson, who once referred to the troublesome right wing of his party as "Neanderthals." McClintock and other conservatives still talk of the episode as a rallying point, drawing little distinction between the crimes of Wilson and Davis. That break also happened to coincide with the popular presidency of Bill Clinton and a shift in the state electorate, which now has 44 percent of voters registered as Democrats (versus 36 percent for Republicans).

"The Republicans have only themselves to blame," says former State Sen. Cathie Wright, a Republican whose old 19th District seat is now held by McClintock. "Hard-core conservatives want it all or nothing, and they got nothing."

It is the "wingers" vs. the "squishers," as they call one another, and not always with affection. The result has been the nomination of doomed right-wing candidates like Simon.

The recall of Gov. Davis was to be their doomsday device, a short-term solution to the insoluble problem that could either reverse a decade of humiliation or send the party deep into irrelevance. To Democrats, it was just another right-wing conspiracy, like Bush v. Gore or the impeachment of Bill Clinton. But the anti-Davis outrage, at least at the street level, is genuine. It is there that the recall began, a Quixotic signature drive launched by Sacramento gadfly Ted Costa, before it was turned into a big-money operation by millionaire Congressman Issa. This is no conspiracy. It is a crusade.

"There is such a visceral hate - especially among the activists - for Gray Davis," says San Diego Republican consultant Scott Barnett. "He is not liked, and he is an awful governor." Barnett understands those feelings, but he was also alarmed enough by the dangerous precedent of a recall that he founded Republicans Against the Recall to warn party members away from a tempting but short-term solution to Davis.

"Part of the problem of our party has been that no one has looked beyond next week, to the implications to our party, our state, and our system," he says. Barnett also worries that a victory by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante could lock up the governor's mansion for another eight years and stall the Bush administration's successful efforts to draw more Latinos into the California party.

For his part, Arnold has proven resilient. He's survived criticism for vague stands on issues and for not participating in debates, trotting his campaign from Leno to Stern to Oprah, as aides quoted "hasta la vista" as if it were policy statement.

Today, he is considered the front-runner, gathering endorsements, watching his poll numbers rise. Not all Republicans are enthralled. The party elite may have anointed the movie star, clinging to his hazy commitment to Republican values and raw name recognition. But the conservative core has other ideas.


At a weekend fundraising lunch in the suburban foothills of La Canada, Tom McClintock looks like a man convinced he is about to win an election. As he waits to step onto a small stage on the lawn of a large, private home, well-wishers shake his hand. "You got me hooked," one middle-aged man says, catching his breath. "I didn't know you until a few months ago." Nearby, a country & western quartet is playing "Okie from Muskogee" and "Make the World Go Away."

When he finally makes it to the stage, McClintock is defiant and direct, practically formal in a black suit and red tie. Behind him, a banner reads "Go Tom Go." As always, he compares his race to the unlikely victory of the race horse Seabiscuit. It's a crowd pleaser. "Clearly, this message is resonating with the electorate of California," he declares. "All of the momentum of this campaign has been on my side."

His refusal to quit has been recognized and championed by a growing chorus of national conservative groups. Just the day before, McClintock was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, enjoying a fundraising benefit by the likes of Christian conservative Gary Bauer. This afternoon, he has to settle for an endorsement message sent from ancient L.A. broadcaster George Putnam, a newsman and commentator from the Dragnet era. The candidate insists, "We will win this on election day."

After 17 years in office, McClintock now spends most of his time in Sacramento. He won his first assembly seat at age 26, and, despite a thin record of legislative accomplishments, his success with true believers taps into real frustration with the party's attempted drift toward the middle. Commentator and 1992 U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn calls himself a fan of Schwarzenegger, but he's endorsed McClintock and is disappointed that more conservatives have not stood with him.

"I'm a Republican because I have particular principles," says Herschensohn, now a foreign policy professor at Pepperdine University. "If we abandon those principles in order to win, in a sense victory becomes a disguise for surrender."

Even Barnett of Republicans Against the Recall is drawn more toward a McClintock candidacy, though his group is endorsing only a "No" vote for the recall itself. He considers himself more moderate on social issues than McClintock but finds commonality on crucial fiscal matters. "We certainly know we will never, ever, ever, ever have any kind of tax increase if he's elected governor," he laughs. "And we will cut the budget significantly."

An arch-conservative libertarian might still have a chance in this state, but ex-Sen. Wright is convinced that McClintock would be no savior, even if elected. "McClintock has been a loner all his life," Wright says. "How is he going to work with a Democratic-controlled senate and assembly? He's made no friends.

"The leader of his own Republican caucus in the senate has endorsed against him. That should tell you something."

She remembers a meeting back in the late '90s, when she was still a state senator and McClintock was in the assembly. He was pushing a bill with all the political finesse of a commando, a hard-headed moment Wright says was typical. "He makes an appointment, and he comes into my office and basically tells me that I have no choice, that I have to vote for it," she says now. "I personally felt that it needed an amendment. He's not willing to work with the committee. So he doesn't get his bill."

This is not a party without leaders who might appeal to the mysterious middle. Consider L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, who early on had polled higher than Davis and even Schwarzenegger. Or Peter Ueberroth, who emerged as a potential Republican star after leading the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to profit and popularity. Time magazine made him "Man of the Year." And he had been talked up as a possible candidate for governor or U.S. Senator ever since, but he always declined. Until the recall.

Wall Street and others watched with interest, but his performance at the first debate in Walnut Creek was not spectacular, though it at least showed a businesslike seriousness, focused on what he described as the fiscal devastation of the state's $38 billion deficit. Asked his views on the death penalty, Ueberroth said he supported it, but then insisted that voters didn't care how he felt "about the death penalty. They want to talk about how to protect their jobs and businesses."

Maybe Ueberroth represents the old O.C.: a quietly conservative businessman, culturally moderate, deifying entrepreneurs, politely cursing taxes, but not the type who's about to march on abortion clinics. A competent presence, but not a great comfort to the far right. At a September 6 campaign event in Glendale, he announced he was on the verge of unleashing his TV campaign, which was set to remind voters of his success at the Olympics, as baseball commissioner, as a businessman.

He stood on a royal blue stage, looking like a man about to deliver a Fortune 500 annual report, speaking in the tone of an amiable econ professor. He was also a bearer of bad news, declaring that the outlook for education funds was "very dim. There isn't enough to go around." He simultaneously praised both Reagan and the late Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley, and he promised to do better at the next debate. Two days later, he was out. Moderate, go home.

Even if Schwarzenegger wins the election and immediately takes office later this month, it may open a door to a renewed state party. Or it could just become another very public battleground between Republican moderates and conservatives, dooming the party's prospects for re-election in 2006. But for some Republicans, that fight itself is more important than compromise.

They are not interested in voting strategically for Arnold, or for anyone else. "Don't surrender a philosophy," argues Herschensohn. "I'm old enough to remember the Barry Goldwater defeat [for president] in 1964. But we stuck to our guns. Everyone was saying that the Republicans are dead, certainly conservatism was dead. Well, in the next election, Nixon won, and then Reagan won. If you focus so much on your own time, on the calendar of today, you don't look to the future. And if you continually bend your principles to win, the victory isn't worth having."

Los Angeles CityBeat, Oct. 10, 2003

Triumph of the Paparazzo

Phil Stern has created some of the greatest celebrity and documentary photographs of all time, but his real love is the sport of getting paid.
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch

By Steve Appleford

The kindly old gentleman with the oxygen tank is waiting on a friend. Phil Stern is on the back patio of his Hollywood home, plugged into the tank, just blocks away from the Paramount lot, peanuts scattered on the table in front of him. It's late afternoon, feeding time for Stern's demanding neighbor, a friendly bluebird named Charlie. Phil knows what it's like to wait for the peanuts to fall.

He has called himself a humble paparazzo, as if he were some kind of handyman with a camera, feeding off the celebrity of the moment. But Phil was no stalker with a telephoto. His metier was always about access, not ambushes and flashbulbs. Along with the usual gigs that kept the kids fed and the rent paid, Stern was a master of the strange, unguarded moment, documenting the movie-making world in pictures both raw and glamorous. He could do the set-up shots, too, with the multiple lights and big cameras and grinning celebrities, but his best work was somewhere closer to the edge, more like Robert Frank than a Hollywood propagandist. Not that Stern always realized it himself at the time. Deep into the files the pictures went, for years and years.

"I've taken mountains and mountains of stuff - which I occasionally describe as mountains and mountains of shit," Stern says, grinning as Charlie hovers nearby. "It so happens, there's a little gem here and a little gem there. You dig out those gems. When a photographer has the advantage of close to a century of work, you end up with lots and lots of stuff. So the law of probability is that, since I've been around a lot longer than most photographers, I have a lot of shit to sift through."

At 84, Stern has outlived many of his most celebrated subjects, and by the 1990s he was really sticking it to the big magazine photo editors in New York. Whenever a major Hollywood star died, a Burt Lancaster or a Dean Martin, Phil would get the call, and he would give them the biggest price he could come up with. Money wasn't really the issue anymore. He spent much of it on his adult children. His purpose was sport. His pictures were intimate, unique, and he knew it. So his business card read: Don't fuck with me.

For years, he had a friendly correspondence with Frank Sinatra, a contest to see who would croak first. They had worked together for decades, Stern and his camera documenting the recording of saloon songs at Capitol Records, taking pictures of Sinatra shoveling pasta into his mouth backstage somewhere, or capturing Frank lighting JFK's cigar at the 1961 inaugural dinner. A big payday was coming, if Phil could just hang on long enough, and he would sometimes send Frank a funny note reminding him of the nice profit his passing would provide.

When the day finally came in 1998, the magazines called as they always did, and CNN rushed over one of its top reporters from Atlanta, a man with a shaved head and a black turtleneck, ready to ask the most obvious questions. What was Sinatra really like? What were Phil's favorite memories of the man? He pored hungrily over a stack of Sinatra pictures. And right there on the counter was a cutout of the singer-actor in a crucifixion pose, another one of Stern's visual gags. A gold mine of Sinatra moments.

Phil had some news for the man from CNN. He would have to pay for the use of every one of those photos. The reporter was momentarily stunned, then pointed out that no less than Herb Ritts had in the past allowed the broadcast of many, many pictures, for no charge at all. Phil just stared at the man, gray head nodding slightly. "I don't have Herb Ritts's publicist."

The stars keep dying, but now Stern lets an agent in New York handle most of the daily negotiations, taking the calls from Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly and People and the rest, demanding big paydays as always, maybe bigger. And the photographer has other pastimes now, at the moment looking over a stack of international magazines celebrating his work, pages and pages of pictures, all of them paid for, of course, and drawn from his massive new book, Phil Stern: A Life's Work (powerHouse).

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that I'd have a book published that's over eight pounds," he says with a chuckle, as he signs a copy with a silver marker. "I get a hernia picking it up, for Christ's sakes."

Anita Ekberg, publicity shoot, 1953.
Photograph by Phil Stern
Courtesy powerHouse Books
Stern has been mostly retired from shooting for at least a decade. A heart attack last year and emphysema have slowed him down and kept him forever connected to his portable oxygen tank. But it hasn't kept him from enjoying a second career ... as an artiste. Or something like that, since Phil Stern rejects use of the words art or artist to describe him or his work. Call him a photographer. Regardless, his best pictures are as close to art as anything by his most esteemed contemporaries. His images often appeared in Life, back when it was a showcase for the likes of the great documentary photographers, W. Eugene Smith and the Magnum crowd.

He first arrived in Los Angeles from New York City in early 1941 as a photographer for Friday, a national leftist weekly, to help open up a West Coast bureau and cover labor, agriculture, and Hollywood. Its motto: "The Weekly Magazine That Dares to Tell the Truth!" It folded the same year, but Stern was quickly recruited as a freelancer for Life and other reputable magazines, spending much of his time on movie sets and backlots. So there he was on the set as Orson Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons back in 1942, a time now so far gone that it seems (and is) incredible that anyone who was there is still lucid enough to talk about it. And over the decades, Stern would take his camera far behind the scenes: John Wayne in checkered hot pants in Acapulco in 1959, John Huston duck hunting in Mexico in 1960, Rita Moreno rehearsing for West Side Story in 1961. At their best, the pictures were vivid, usually black-and-white, and filled with humor or subtle drama, evocative of far more than just their celebrity value.

The photographer himself is less impressed, although he enjoys your compliments and all the attention. Stern was an admirer of graphic arts and the great painters, and inevitably the use of shadow and light he saw in Daumier and Delacroix seeped into his pictures. But the man was looking for a paycheck, he insists, and he knew that more complex images were likely to earn a higher fee by appearing across two full pages (i.e., "double-trucks"). "That economic factor was important," he says. "I also learned to feel out the tastes of different editors. So in a way, you can make an allegory of Heidi Fleiss and I." He laughs. "I mean, all this bullshit, any photographer that goes 'I only do what I feel in my gut. I don't do what any editor says.' To me, I'm very suspicious."

Others see it differently. "So many talented working photographers have a hard time seeing their work as something special," says David Fahey, who first met Stern while co-curating Masters of Starlight, a 1986 group exhibition of Hollywood photographers at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He's represented Stern at L.A.'s Fahey/Klein Gallery ever since. "He can't go an hour without making some kind of self-deprecating joke about himself. But he's certainly aware of how important his pictures are, because enough people have told him how important they are."

In 1942, Stern was recruited by the Army Signal Corps as a soldier-photographer attached to an infantry division, eventually known as Darby's Rangers. This time the pictures he made were on the front line of a world war, bearing witness to invasions, villages ablaze, burned bodies. One of his favorite photographs from that period shows the men of his own unit marching through a town, oblivious to the graveyard beside them. Most of the men in that picture would soon be dead or wounded.

Between combat missions, the Rangers were sent out into the field in order to draw German cannon fire, to see what the enemy artillery could do. Lucky Phil. He was finally seriously injured in North Africa, as enemy fire tore apart his neck, one hand, and both legs. As he recuperated in an Army hospital, he was given a choice: return home or go back out to the front to witness the invasion of Sicily. He went to Sicily. "Twenty-one-and-a-half years old, macho, adventurous, all that shit," he says today. "If I had to do this all over again, believe me, I'd run to Canada. Looking back at it, I don't even believe it happened. To me, it was like a big piece of fiction."

One picture not in his new book happened in the Army hospital. Another soldier there had been shot up, his face torn to shreds and pieced back together by plastic surgeons. The final result fell far short of handsome, with thick scars and a misshapen mouth. Stern got him to attempt his first smile since his injuries. He took the picture, an image that is disturbing and somehow touching all at once.

"You point a camera, and you push the button," he says of his time in the Army. "The only trouble is that your life is at stake, and I came close to being killed quite a few times. But it turns out that everything seems to work in my favor. God apparently is very generous to atheists. He fucks the believers. That's my observation."

How else to explain the windfall today? He has been honored by the mayor and knows city politicians on a first-name basis. At openings of his shows in Los Angeles and New York, he is greeted and feted by the biggest names in photography, and even the new generation of photo editors he has tortured for so long. They act like fans. They are charmed by his winking, streetwise remarks. In 1999, he traveled to Havana for a one-man show organized by the photographer Korda. And people keep buying his prints.

More recently, Michael Jackson rolled up to his house in a limo one day, accompanied by two bodyguards and a young son, Prince. ("I looked at that little blond kid, and he looked like a replica of a little Nordic doll.") Jackson went through his prints, stood teetering on a stool, and left with a pile of prints and a bill for $47,000. He never paid, and eventually all the items were returned but one: A lifesized cutout of a swaggering Marlon Brando, in cuffed jeans and leather jacket, printed up in connection with Stern's first book in 1993.

"I've encountered kooky people, absolutely," Stern says of his career. "Jackson is not quite the pink-cheeked American boy that lives next door." But Jackson still has the Brando, and Stern doesn't have another. He rarely gives up on these things. Too much fun to be had. He'll get it back. Don't fuck with Phil Stern.

Los Angeles CityBeat, March 17, 2004.

The Desperate Party

By Steve Appleford

The girls next door must be lesbians, all seven of them, young and blonde in their soft college sweatshirts, somehow managing to ignore the loud drunk dudes in Room 3108. They are nice enough to these boys from Ohio, amused even, but they will not succumb. Not interested. Not even on this final night of binge drinking and reckless escape from the grim responsibilities waiting for them back at school. The annual Spring Break ritual of Panama City Beach, Florida, is where the sex and booze are supposed to flow cheap and easy for the thousands of acrobatic young men and women arriving every weekend for a desperate good time. So the boys in 3108 have watched with intense frustration as the girls next door spend their days laying on the beach or stumbling back to the hotel to drink heavily after dark, while still refusing to hook-up, feel-up, sex-up with anyone.

Some of the guys have developed a new motto: “Fuck Bitches.” It is both a sneer and a destination, a true double-entendre, depending on their luck with the ladies on a given night. Sex is not guaranteed, no matter what the leering video cameras of MTV and Girls Gone Wild! have promised them. But there is always beer, the crucial tonic and social lubricant, absorbed in truly epic quantities tonight and every night. Hotel rooms across the city are decorated with empty beer cans stacked into great walls and pyramids, standing as monuments to blind drunkenness and pointless endurance. Here at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel and party compound, empty beer cans float in the pool as a boozed-up hooligan climbs down from a second-floor balcony. A window above him is lined with hard liquor bottles, and small rooms all over the hotel overflow with parties fueled on beer, drugs and cigarettes, mingling students from America’s finest schools and its most obscure universities.

Room 3108 has enjoyed the occasional female guests passing in and out tonight, but this is a mostly male gathering. At least 23 of them are crowded inside a room that is about the size of a prison cell. Most of the furniture is stacked against a wall. A portable George Foreman Grill sits in the corner, ready for quick meals and protein. And dresser drawers are filled with supplies: condoms, shoes, balloons, cigarettes, beads, B12 vitamins to fight the inevitable hangovers, allowing these boys to wake up drunk and anxious for more abuse.

Standing on a bed is Brad George, a 20-year-old bouncer from Youngstown, Ohio. His head is shaved, “Slim” is tattooed onto a burly shoulder. The thick plastic tube in his mouth leads to a funnel in the hands of his brother and friends, who pour in three cans of delicious Natural Light beer for instant consumption.

It goes down fast, as everyone shouts: “Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!”

They each take turns at the funnel, sending icy brew into the beer bong as an old Guns N’ Roses CD of “Paradise City” spins on the boombox. All of them wear black wrist-bands required by the hotel for guests older than 21 and legally allowed to drink, but there is plenty of underage boozing here tonight. (Brad has a fake ID that says he is 23.) They are also taking a break from the $25 cover-charge at the clubs down on the strip, looking instead to do their drinking all night at the hotel, stumbling from room to room, as always meeting people on the balconies, in the parking lot, by the ice machine. In the last week, they’ve managed to spend just $700 between them, a small fortune for humble college students looking for a cheap good time in Panama City. And in the morning they will be gone, on the road back to Ohio and their classes on computer programming and high finance after tomorrow’s 8 a.m. check-out time, making room for the next round of fresh Spring Breakers.

Brad has had some luck with the ladies these last couple of nights over at Harpoon Harry’s down on the strip. He was at the bar maybe five minutes one night when a girl called him the sexiest man alive and offered to make-out, right then and there. Fuck yeah. And she followed him around the rest of the night, even into the men’s bathroom, as Brad’s friend demonstrates with a quick look at his digital camera. There on the rear screen is a glimpse of Brad’s face buried in the breasts of some anonymous girl. There are 40 more like it. (“Brad made out with the most bitches!”) The pictures are a common souvenir from Spring Break 2003: Women lifting their tops, dropping their thongs, kissing or licking each other, usually for nothing more than a string of plastic Mardi Gras beads, exposing themselves to the digital snapshot cameras of strangers, from there to be shared with friends back home or scattered to the infinite of the World Wide Web.

The girls in the next room will not be found there. Meghan, 19, did kiss a lot of guys in Panama City last year, all of them brief, anonymous, lusty encounters, but no nudity, no sex. This time she has a boyfriend back home in Virginia, and he’s already not happy about this return trip into the Redneck Riviera, where it is not unusual or even discouraged for a quiet coed to find herself at a nightclub drunk and grinding like a stripper for 2,000 hooting young men. Not Meghan, a speech pathology and art history major at James Madison University.

She has done nothing but drink and sunbathe and drink again, interrupted only when hotel security confiscated her room’s supply of hard liquor. Eight bottles. She and her friends are all underage, and a sloppy, drunken scheme to change their color-coded wrist-bands with a permanent marker convinced no one. But they were already drunk, and some chivalrous young men quickly re-supplied them, so now their room is again scattered with empty and half-empty bottles of plain-wrap vodka and cheap Aristocrat Gin. A copy of Cosmopolitan magazine sits nearby, along with cans of Campbell’s soup and the two small turtles bought today in town and named for two of the girls. All of them face a long drive back to the dorms at JMU 800 miles away in the morning. They will party only until 3 a.m.

Meghan reclines in the bed with Rebecca, Whitney and Jenny, beginning their final night in Panama City slowly. “There’s a lot of obnoxious boys,” Meghan says, her voice not angry but relaxed, a little weary. “When you go to the club you get groped. Then you get thrown-up on at the bikini contest. We see a lot of boobs. There will be circles of people, and inside girls are dancing and about ready to show for beads and stuff, and guys will literally run to the beach to see it. Kind of pathetic in a way.”

Caligula would have understood. The drink, the sex, the desperate frenzy of it all. Spring Break is a festival of sun and sin, where young high school and college escapees wash up on the beaches of Florida like thousands of breeding salmon. For some it’s a final binge of intense irresponsibility before graduation and a life-sentence to the daily paycheck grind. Look closely and you will see the future, tomorrow’s lawyers and chiropractors, would-be psychologists and TV commentators, a policeman’s daughter, all here for one more giddy dance along the edge. No longer kids, not quite adults, and some away from home for the first time, trashing hotel rooms for no reason at all, living like rock stars for a week amid oceans of cheap beer, geysers of vomit and young casualties everywhere.

It is an old tradition, not at all limited to this particular stretch of white sands and old resort hotels. There are foam parties in Cancun and Baja, wet T-shirts in Jamaica and South Padre Island, Texas, beer and hard liquor everywhere, helping another generation shed whatever innocence might be left. In the ’80s, Palm Springs became notorious for televised images of rioting young men stripping the bikinis off girls at mid-day, right on main street, before a police crackdown and showbiz Mayor Sonny Bono succeeded in banning the thong, finally sending serious Spring Breakers elsewhere. And they must always go somewhere in March, to celebrate and ignore the high holy days of Easter, to escape the pressures of school and the impending future. A first date can end in the shower with a temporary friend or tan and blotto in the back of a squad car. The fun never stops.

Panama City Beach is nestled in the swampy panhandle of Northwest Florida, once known as the Redneck Riviera, right on the Gulf of Mexico. The Confederate Flag still waves from the back of the occasional pickup truck here, can be seen in a few apartment windows or painted onto a custom T-shirt for sale at Wal-Mart. A last stand for the old ways. No one seems to care. It is a city of just 7,000 permanent residents, living along 27 miles of beach that during Spring Break attract nearly 500,000 swarming young men and women in urgent need of extreme pleasure. Panama City Beach police make 60 percent of annual arrests during March, the high-tide month for Spring Break, when a good 75,000 kids are in town on any given night. Fights, theft, evictions. City fathers have made some moves to clean up the darker implications of this hedonistic migration, but local businesses still fund a nearly half-million-dollar ad campaign to keep them coming, in 2002 even boasting of cheap alcohol and “booze cruises,” delivering about a third of the town’s annual economy in a single month.

On the beaches in March, the occasional couple with a small child can be seen strolling the white sands, looking lost, out of place, in some kind of unspecified danger. But soon they are gone. Offshore, there is swimming and boating and para-sailing, among other wholesome athletic pastimes, but most of the action is on the beach. It is where young women are held upside-down by their ankles and thighs by grunting young men for gravity defying keg-stands, where a drinker can demonstrate the amount of beer that can be inhaled into his or her body before it comes streaming back out the nostrils. Tossing beer kegs heavily across the beach is a sport for the muscled and macho, though most kegs remain buried in the sand, away from the view of cops, since kegs are illegal on the beach. It is where a heavy dude called Kiwi is sloppy drunk in a grass skirt and a bikini top made of two seashells strapped tight against his chest, as he stomps on the beach, moaning, “Keee-weee! Keee-weee! Keee-weee!”

Girls wear bikinis and shades while guys adorn their bare chests with puca shells and plastic Mardi Gras beads, careful to wear their baggies low, revealing the upper strap of their brand-name underwear: Jockey, Joe Boxer, Tommy Hilfiger, Ambercrombie & Fitch, labels too important to leave hidden. One must always represent. So must corporate America.

Right on the beach is a bikini contest on a small wooden stage, where young women in bathing suits take their turns beneath a banner reading “U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.” Some dude on the sand is having his head lathered up and shaved as women step up to dance to anonymous breakbeats, the true competitors shaking that ass and top onstage hard, except for those who don’t, and they are rewarded with silence from the testosterone crowd. Until the inevitable yell: “Show your titties!”
On a more elaborate stage nearby, two hosts invite up Spring Breakers to spin a carnival wheel, which offers a variety of challenges for some lucky guy or girl: “Kiss a guy,” “Get licked,” “Suck big toe,” “semi-naked.” Up onstage now is Alicia Wichner, 19, all the way from Springfield, Ohio. She is a little blonde chick in a flowery bikini, somehow dragged up onstage to judge a kissing contest: meaning that she is on her tip-toes to kiss the first of five contestants, a young black man with a smile on his face. “He’s got big lips!” she says happily. “My boyfriend would be so mad by now. He doesn’t get here until Monday.”

It is now that one of the hosts feels the time is right to once again lead the daily mantra of Spring Breakers everywhere. “You know, what happens in Panama City,” he begins, and he’s then joined by the entire crowd, “stays in Panama City!”
It is a policy and a prayer, a hope for the future, chanted with a drunken wink as your host drips choco syrup and whipped cream on your near-naked body. And your best bud gets it all on camera as the host declares into the microphone, “Keep in mind, this is for Verizon Wireless!”


Enter the foam pit at your own risk. This is what they tell you, printed in bold letters right above the sudsy dancefloor, where boys and girls are getting right down on it, dancing to the hits of the moment, rubbing sloppily against one another. The risks involved depend on your point of view. The chemical content of the foam is perhaps uncertain after several hours of horny dudes and sloshed chicks. And the inevitable groping is either a calculated risk or the whole point.

This is Friday night at Club La Vela, where the downstairs sports bar doubles as the weekly foam pit for young Spring Breakers loaded on booze: squealing, hooting, screaming, panting, giggling, with no immediate plans for this precious week in Panama City beyond laying out, partying every night, and maybe hooking up with a convenient body of the opposite sex. On the TV by the bar, ESPN is broadcasting a poker tournament among weird card sharps at Binions in Las Vegas. No one watches.

One girl eyes the foam from the bar. She is a 19-year-old communications major from North Carolina. She wants to be a TV news anchor. She steps into the foam. “I got six other girls here! They’ll protect me!”

Not everyone is so happy. “Coming here tells me there are fucking stupid-ass whores all over the United States. And I don’t want to touch any of them,” says Craig Platt, a scowling blond in a “Texas Greeks” T-shirt. His friend, Eric Knaver, 22, is a tall Texan with spent bottle caps folded over the brim of his cowboy hat, stepping from the foam with great sudsy muttonchops riding up his face from the layers of beads around his neck. It gives him the appearance of an elegant bluegrass crooner. He is a junior studying finance at Texas A&M. He says, “Yesterday was my fucking birthday, man.”

A week ago, Knaver and his three buddies drove all night from Houston to Panama City, slept a few hours, started partying. He is a sinner, a possibly collapsed Catholic among thousands of vacationing hedonists. But whenever Knaver attempts to light a cigarette, Platt grabs it from his mouth, shouting, “Lent! I’m holding you true, asshole!”

Over at the bar, young Pete Wilson, 21, is not concerned about the foam. He is sipping a drink, still in awe of the epic scene back at his hotel earlier this afternoon, when all Spring Break fantasies and fears collided into a dazzling whole. He has come from the single-digit climes of Rochester, New York, for this, and has arrived at a new appreciation for the barter value of cheap beer, which was enough to entice two young ladies back to his room by the beach. Sex was immediate. “I have experienced things down here that I have never seen before,” Wilson says, still in disbelief, his hair bright red, short and curly. “You walk into a room and you see a girl naked and she’s hooking up with you, a boy of yours, and then another kid behind her. I mean, she’s going crazy. You don’t walk into things like that when you’re in New York. I’m seeing a bitch ass-naked, giving my buddy the nastiest blow job I’ve ever seen in my life. And my other buddy’s strapping a fuckin’ rubber on and is about to stick it right in her fucking cooch, man. She had a friend, too. We brought both of them back, and they were just freakin’. They were spilling beer on my buddy and licking it off his chest. It was absolutely nuts. They were from Mississippi and shit. I couldn’t even tell you their names if I wanted to. I don’t even know. This place is crazy. This was Saturday afternoon.”

This is the best part: One of Pete’s pals couldn’t get it up. Whiskey dick! The thing was useless, soaked with booze and anxiety, a total waste. So as the girls are leaving, he yells out the window: “Whores! Whores!” They didn’t seem to notice. Or care. Because later that same night, Pete and his friends were back at La Vela and those same chicks were there and acting damn friendly. Soon enough, they were coming back to the hotel again, gladly trading sex for beer. And this is only Pete’s second night in town.

This morning, he and his pals picked up three new cases of Old Milwaukee and two cases if Busch Lite at the Wal-Mart, which rests at the hub of Spring Break society in Panama City. It is where all visitors must pass, where suitcases of Budweiser (only $15.17!) are stacked to the ceiling, and deliverymen in gray Bud shirts are wheeling in new supplies a few times a day. The year before, a quarter-million cases of Anheiser-Busch were delivered to the Wal-Mart store in March alone. A thousand more arrive every night. That keeps the parking lot crowded with cars and pickups and motorhomes all day, as Breakers stock up on kegs and cans, wine coolers and funnels, beads and bad T-shirts, surfing across the asphalt to their cars with full shopping carts.

Then, after they have been drunk and vomited on the beach, or partied and screwed at the hotel, many return to the big clubs. To Hammerhead Fred’s or Spinnaker’s or back to La Vela, which still claims to be the largest club in the world, proudly displaying a big fading MTV sign above the entrance from when the network paraded bikini girls and drooling guys on camera in the ’90s.

Club La Vela is a hedonist’s paradise, with a daily schedule of girls in bikini’s and soaked T-shirts, and a DJ blasting the season’s theme, sung by Khia against an ominous frenetic beat, and enjoying endless rotation on this throbbing pool deck: “Suck this pussy just like you should/My Neck, my back/Lick my pussy and my crack.”

Every day is the same. It is formula. The host, a grinning muscleman and former male dancer in shorts and wraparound shades, stirs up the testosterone for the daily bikini and wet T-shirt contests. Girls and guys will grind and rub and shake their bodies on command and hump the stage while surrounded by several hundred cheering hooting whistling Beakers sucking down beers and cigarettes and bucket-size fruity concoctions of hard hooch that go down real easy. Nudity is not allowed, though anything close to it is absolutely encouraged, right up to the limits of the law. So your host bellows into the microphone: “Guys, don’t show anything because even a small one will get us in trouble,” just as he begins the daily parade of perfect and imperfect young bodies onto the small stage. “We are here to insure that you all have the best possible time that you can! And right now it is time to start the WET AND WILD WET T-SHIRT CONTEST! All the guys, if you want to, get in the water and come up around the pool deck right now. The closer you get the more fun you’re gonna have! Are you ready?! Contestant number one in the wet T-shirt is Ruth. Come on up, Ruth! Make some noise!”

Ruth shakes it hard, and soon she stands before the host, her arms stretched out above her, full young breasts heaving below a ripped T-shirt, as the water hose sprays the fabric moist and snug against her skin, nipples hardening and clearly visible. She shakes it some more and the audience cheers crazily, in lust and excitement. Contestants who drift too close to the crowd get pawed by the guys, who are whooping it up. And on a balcony above the pool, a woman leans back over the railing as her shirtless boyfriend of the hour squeezes her breasts beneath a black bikini top, right there beside banners for Chrysler and the U.S. Army, for Arrid Total deodorant and Nair For Men.

Your host once again announces the girls for the finale and calls for “audience response voting” – Lana! (polite cheers), Kristen! (louder), Britney! (polite hooting), Kelly! (more of the same), Tish! (a little louder), Amanda! (big cheers), Ashley! (bigger still, and all for a $25 bar tab for third place, $50 for second, and admission that night into the fabulous La Vela VIP room for the top prize). The winner hardly matters and is immediately forgotten. The hunt continues, for the next thrill or glimpse of skin, with no clear rules or boundaries anywhere. And none desired.


The nightly journey to sex, drink and dementia must always pass Front Beach Road, where Breakers spend quality time cruising for dates and thrills. Cars with plates from across the South and all the way up to New England roll slowly down the two-lane boulevard, kids running between moving cars, alongside, hopping onto tailgates. Hot-rodded imports roar for the few feet between cars. A local cruiser blasts “Stairway to Heaven” from his Pontiac, drifting past motels and strip clubs and gift shops selling piercings and T-shirts (“five for $5”). A car filled with girls stops suddenly, freezing traffic behind, and is immediately swarmed by guys, rows of beads across their chests, ready for barter in the skin trade. A police squad car pulls over a pick-up with 11 kids in back, flashing the bright blue lights.

Local men from the ghetto across the bridge watch the street traffic from a Burger King parking lot. One of them has his two pit bulls on chains, his ’76 Impala blasting the newest hip-hop hits. Robert is 26, his hair braided tight, watching the scenery pass by and still talking about the few crazy ones at the big hotels nearby who don’t make it back home, all the “bitches jumping off the building, thinking they could fly. It happens every year.”

One busy stop along the strip is the Beach Package Store, self-proclaimed “Spring Break Headquarters – ATM Inside.” A crowd of locals in their 30s drink Miller Lite and icy shots of Jagermeister. Girls in shorts and halter tops stroll inside for supplies as “Freebird” plays on the stereo. Above the cash register and rows of hard liquor is a TV with the sound off, but a female news anchor stares grimly into the camera, as the headlines “Student Drinking” and “Women Gone Wild” flash above her.

Outside, Christians hand out roses, just five young cadets from the Maryland Naval Academy, down South to spread salvation at Spring Break. A bus filled with 66 of them traveled to Panama City for this. They are among nearly 3,500 Christians passing through Panama City during Spring Break each year, preaching an alternative to drink and debauchery. Much like Bobbie Watson of St. Louis, a 19-year-old stalking the beaches and sipping nothing heavier than Pepsi and Mountain Dew. “I used to drink,” he says. “I was a big partier in high school. If I hadn’t been saved by Christ, I’d probably be here doing the complete opposite. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of life I like anymore.”


The end will come, as it always does. Several of the old hotels are already closed, fenced off, ready for demolition. Even some of the bigger buildings have been knocked down, making room for condos and a more affluent clientele, closed forever to future Spring Breakers. Last year’s party spot is this year’s rubble. The ruins stretch out west along the sand. At the old Shalimar, with a sign that still promises a “heated pool,” all that remains is a jagged shell, its west wing ripped open. The few remaining rooms are scraped clean, down to the bare brick and concrete, as local scavengers load pickup trucks with old fixtures and aqua-colored doors.

Spring Break may one day abandon Panama City, just as it did to Fort Lauderdale (after peaking with 350,000 visitors in 1985) or Daytona Beach (which banned thongs), both of them Florida beach communities turning away student debauchery for a more sedate family constituency. Even in Panama City, which remains the largest draw for starving college kids anywhere, the crowds are beginning to shrink, and what’s left is the target of intense competition between clubs and promoters, bars and restaurants, gift shops and tattoo parlors. Longtime promoters can see it already, as rival events now occur at the same time on the same days, ensuring that virtually all fail to hit that legendary massive payday.

It will take time for the tide of college students to finally turn elsewhere, as even the town of Panama City Beach is at odds with itself, embracing the culture and profit of Spring Break while hoping to shift the tone away from wet T-shirts and unlimited drinking. It hardly matters in the end. The excesses of March are as ancient as the Greeks and Romans, as old Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. And not everyone outgrows it. The need to escape is profound and eternal, regardless of the location of your blackout or the size of the party. Even a small one will get you into trouble.

Los Angeles/2004

From Spring Broke: Photographs by Nathaniel Welch. Essay by Steve Appleford. Introduction by Evan Wright, powerHouse Books, 2004.